Walking Back in Time at Abbey House Museum
When I was a kid, my parents took me to the Abbey House Museum in Kirkstall, Leeds. This building was originally a Monastic Gatehouse for the nearby Kirkstall Abbey. Following the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, it passed through different owners before being opened to the public in the 1920’s.
Different periods of history meet inside. The House was extended several times, with stones taken from the beautiful ruin of the Abbey. In the 19th Century, gothic features were added, an oak staircase and medieval windows. For a place drawing its style from so many different pages of history, it is perhaps appropriate that its greatest success story and the attraction for which it has become most famous is its recreation of Victorian streets.
These have expanded over the years, especially since the completion of renovations and improvements in 2001. Amongst other things there are recreations of a Victorian chemist, pawnbroker, toy shop and the houses of both rich and poor. There are many hundreds of original items included in the layout which, perhaps appropriately, seems bigger than the building, when seen from the outside, could be expected to contain.
It can be dangerous to go back to places from your childhood. As a young boy, it fired my imagination, especially as it reminded me of the Victorian dreamscape that I’d watched Colin Baker battling his enemies within in episodes of Doctor Who. To the child me, the past was not so much a different time as a different place in which I could imagine myself as another, more alien person.
Fortunately, returning to Abbey House and the Victorian Streets was a happy experience. These are clearly a labour of love and all the better for it. They still feel full of detail and as an adult, I was perhaps more willing to imagine the life of 19th Century Yorkshire people. The streets bring home how cluttered and full or work their lives were and just how unequal. It’s a reminder that as much as things change, they also stay the same. The location of someone’s birth has a huge impact on the life they lead, as it always has.
It still feels like exploring the past, like a little adventure, which I think is the best way of encountering history. And naturally, like anyone else, I bring to it the ideas and associations of Victorian England that I’ve taken from TV and books: Oliver Twist and From Hell, Sherlock Homes -young as Nicholas Rowe, old as Jeremy Brett – Cybermen in a graveyard and Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit.
I think what I’m trying to say is that, just as when I was a young boy, I wanted to play on these streets.
Given this, it’s fitting that the museum is also home to an exhibition of children toys. These are charming, sweet and in some cases, down right creepy. The china faced dolls look like the they spend their evenings recounting tales of past owners who came to terrible ends.
In the middle of it all is a wonderfully Pop Art toy Dalek that delighted the adult me as much as it would have the child me.
Happy time travelling.